To Build a Community of Grace

Some thirty years ago, the first in a series of movies was released. It is entitled "The Gods Must Be Crazy." It is a clever comedy yet with profound messages. One of the stories in the film is about an African tribe that lives in the Kalahari Desert in the southern part of the continent. This tribe is a community in collaboration and cooperation with one another. The tribe lives well in its work, play, and prosperity. This life is attributed to the favor from the gods from above. Favor from God in Christ is both undeserved and unearned and called Grace. From a Christian and Western viewpoint, one may describe this tribe as having attributes of a community of grace.

However, one day a glass bottle is thrown from an airplane and falls unbroken to the ground. In the movie, the bottle is found among the tribe. Initially, the bottle is seen as a gift from the gods, albeit a strange artifact. However, it quickly becomes a tool in the tribe. The bottle is used in cooking, working, and even play. Nonetheless, this tool becomes a temptation. Since there is only one bottle to go around, there begins competition for use of this tool. This leads to difficult experiences for the tribe. They succumb to moments of envy, jealousy, anger, enmity, and even violence. The tool becomes an evil thing. Their community of grace is threatened with turmoil and trouble.

The protagonist in the movie, Xi, offers to take the evil thing and throw it off the edge of the earth. Xi sets off on a quest. With bottle in hand, he is exposed to more of Western culture than just a glass container. One sees his experiences and observations from his viewpoint. Xi learns a number of lessons about the outside world, himself and his tribe.  

Jesus the Rabbi offers teachings as lessons to the disciples and the crowds. Jesus teaches that discipleship in Christ is to follow our Lord and build a community of grace. What does it take to build a community of grace? The Gospels are teaching manuals for building a community of grace. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, cites challenging admonitions. Matthew 18:15-20 addresses difficult circumstances that confront the life of a community. This passage offers followers of Christ to respond when there appears a strange artifact, such as a bottle, which threatens to harm the community.

There were plenty of bottles in first century Palestine. Jesus the Teacher names the misused bottles in order to break their power over the people.

"If another member of the church (i.e. if someone in your community) sins against you...," follow these instructions. Jesus refers to a previous manual known as the Old Testament, the Torah, and specifically the books of Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Jesus confirms and fulfills the teachings of the Hebrew Testament for those who follow the words of Christ.

"Sins against you..." The word sin is transliterated in the New Testament Greek as Harmontón. The word Harmontón appears three times in the Gospel of Matthew: when Judas confesses his betrayal as sin, when Peter asked Jesus how many times to forgive sins of another, and in this instance when Jesus advises on a sure process for addressing Harmontón. 

Miss the mark leads to difficult circumstances in the life of a community. Miss the mark is a translation for Harmontón the mark threatens a community of grace. Harmontón may manifest itself as misguided beliefs and misdirected behavior. A miss in life! Miss the boat. Miss the bus. Miss the Appointment. Miss the ball. Miss the shot. Misunderstand. Miscommunicate. Miss you! Missing! Miss!

Matthew 18:15-20 encourages that we ask the question, "What have I missed?" What is my bottle? What quest do I take? The quest or journey is usually walked one step at a time.

There are five R's to address harmontón in a community of grace. They are Repentance, Resolution, Redemption, Reconciliation and Restoration. These five R's are a spiritual path to build a community of grace. At the Episcopal Day School in Brownsville, TX, where I was rector of a parish and school, I was inspired to use another set of five fingers for finding forgiveness. It is:  Say it, say you're sorry, stop it, sort it out and start over. I have offered these five fingers to finding forgiveness to penitents in their private confession and we smile at the profundity and simplicity of grace. 

Everyone one of us has missed something. The teaching of Matthew 18 is to examine our conscience in order to build community of grace. Here is another five-step formula interpreted from the words of Jesus:

  1. Pause and ponder our own bottle issues.

  2. Follow the admonition of Christ.

a. First, speak person-to-person with whom there is a bottle issue.

b. If necessary, bring the bottle issue before a small but trusted group. Remember, when two or three are gathered in the Name of Jesus, God's favor is with you.

c. If need be, bring the matter of the bottle before the community of grace in order to stay in grace.

d. If there is no resolution, let that person go and pray for that person's soul.

e. And pray for forgiveness for yourself and myself, a sinner.

  1. Then take the residue in a bottle and throw it off the edge of the earth and let Heaven reign. 

  2. Be reminded of the teachings of the Holy Scriptures to be on guard about divisions (Romans 16) yet address these matters with gentleness (Galatians 6). Fourth, as well, sing glory to God in the Doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow...."

  3. And, finally, Lift up your hands, Lift High the Cross, Lift up the Name of Jesus, Lift up the Community of Grace. 

Twentieth-century Christian martyr Dietrick Bonhoeffer taught at an underground seminary during the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1939 he wrote a book entitled Life Together. Life Together is a way to describe Community of Grace. Life Together in the early Christian church was named Koinonia in the Greek language. In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer wrote: "Nothing could be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing could be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a sister/brother from the path of sin."

My mother is a woman in her 80's who had little formal education. Yet, in her wisdom, Mom always took care of anything that could hurt our family. Whenever one of my seven siblings had a bottle issue, including me, she would employ some of the principles of Matthew 18. When my younger brother Ralph and I had a tussle, Mom would admonish us to deal with it ourselves. If needed, the bottle was brought to her for resolution. If necessary, it was to be taken to my father when he came home from work and then everyone in the family would know about this. The spiritual motivation for my brother and me and my siblings was to find resolution and restoration before Dad came home! Mom kept and still keeps bottles of a very large family from missing the mark!

In the movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy," Xi returns from his quest. He comes back illumined about the Western world. He learns some difficult lessons about dress, trucks, property, law, and what he sees as dependence upon "strange magic."  Xi returns to his tribe with gratitude and celebration for he knows a Community of Grace.

We who are disciples in Jesus have a labor for our lives as we observe this Labor Day weekend. Our life and labor is to build Community of Grace that we know as the church. This Community of Grace is not founded on strange magic but on the bountiful mystery of God.

We are to pray, work and give for the construction of this blessed, if not perfect, community known as the Church. A medieval saying, "The Church is like Noah's ark. You can't stand the stench insider except for the storm outside!" To build this Community of Grace may be trying, yet ultimately rewarding; it may be petty, yet finally satisfying; it may be difficult, yet in the end joyful. May we receive rewards in following, satisfaction in grace, and joy in community. May our Community of Grace not be based on glass bottles but on the teachings of Jesus. May the words of Jesus the Rabbi teach us to build Community of Grace.

And the children of God says Amen.

And the people of Christ says Amen.

And the Community of Grace says Amen.

So be It!

Let us pray. Grant us, O Lord, to trust you with all our hearts for as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boasts of your mercy. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.